Most accounts of Sam Shepard’s life tell the same story: A Beckett-inspired young man heads to New York in the ’60s and remakes himself as Sam Shepard, the offbeat, off-Broadway playwright. After a three-year relocation to England in the early ’70s, Shepard returned to the states and shed his one-act rock-and-roll guise, reinventing himself, in one of the most interesting second acts in American life, as Eugene O’Neill’s heir by writing masterly family dramas such as True West (1980) and the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner Buried Child. His screen career, which began in earnest with a starring role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), went on to include appearances in more than 40 films and an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).
His former father-in-law Johnny Dark is rarely more than a footnote in this story, usually mentioned in passing alongside a reference to Shepard’s first wife, O-Lan, or in connection with his photographs for Motel Chronicles. Dark, though, is much more than a minor character in Shepard’s biography. He was the playwright’s confidant and sounding board for both his writing and his personal life. Dark was the closest thing Shepard had to a brother, and the correspondence that covers much of their 45-year relationship may be the deepest personal look we will get into Shepard’s world, since he said in a number of interviews that he had no interest in writing a memoir, and never did. Now, after Shepard’s death, their deeply honest letters offer a tale of friendship, masculinity, addiction, and fidelity, as both men tried to overcome their personal shortcomings and feelings of rootlessness.
Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark—released last year in paperback—gathers these gripping, sometimes gut-wrenching letters and transcribed conversations in which the men open themselves to each other. Shepard’s letters give us some of the only insights we will ever get into his personal philosophy and creative process, while in Dark’s letters we discover insights into Shepard’s character that only an intimate friend could provide. The writers also reflect on the books and authors that stimulate their thinking, their relationships with women (including Shepard’s anguished decision to leave his wife and son—Dark’s stepdaughter and grandson—for actress Jessica Lange), personal struggles, and the ups-and-downs of aging. While Shepard’s genius lives on in his celebrated plays, stories, and movies, his wisdom and candor survive in his own words.
Sam Shepard on Celebrating Yourself and Success
To Johnny Dark, November 7, 1997—Minnesota
Thanks for the birthday letter & pix. Great one of you walking, head down, toward camera, hands in pockets, white hair gleaming in Calif. sun. What is this man pondering about so deeply? Look up man! Look up!
Yes, another birthday! I took the whole family out to a neat little restaurant in a small town nearby. The walls of the place are lined with glass cases containing a huge collection of salt & pepper shakers. Every time the train passes or the door opens & shuts, all the salt & pepper shakers rattle & tremble in unison. It was a great meal, surrounded by the ones I love & I kept having little glimmers of the truth (that’s all I hope for now) of how incredibly selfish I’ve lived my whole life—everything geared toward what I might gain out of it—even in my relationships with family & those I think I’m closest to. The insanity of it boggles the mind &, of course, there’s always this censorship going on; always this internal self-criticism—“You shouldn’t be like that. You should be more generous—open-hearted—” etc. It’s sickening & yet this amazing truth of ‘seeing’ comes on now with a force far greater than I ever felt it during those periods when I thought I was ‘In The Work.’ It must have to do with time. Maybe so much time has to pass before the real nitty gritty starts to leak in through all the dreaming & self-deception. So—aging isn’t so bad if this accumulation of a force toward seeing myself actually grows along with the degeneration of the physical body. Who knows what dream we’re caught up in now!
I’ve finished my play [Eyes for Consuela, 1999] on my birthday—auspicious. Took me almost exactly one year to complete. I can remember when I used to write a play a week. (Of course, they were shorter back then.) Also, working on more stories. I love the form & see many new possibilities in it. Came across a Mid-Western writer by the name of William H. Gass who wrote a collection called In the Heart of the Heart of the Country—very strange almost hypnotic style that every once in a while explodes into some vivid image of experience. You might like him or hate him—depending on your mood. Reading the Pentland book every day—always something vital to glean from it. Always returning to the same question of attention.
Life compels me now. I must eat! I must have coffee! I must smoke & become engaged in the activities of the day. I must be pulled inexorably out of myself in order to be reminded again & again of the need to come back. I never saw that before. The two-headed monster. When they used to talk about 2 directions I had no idea what they were saying. Double arrows & all that Ouspensky stuff. And now I’m really spinning out—the ego-mind gobbling up every scrap of a real idea, a real experience & turning it to shit. It’s wonderful, isn’t it? (Jimmy Stewart—It’s a Wonderful Life).
Regards to you & yours.
Your aging friend,
Sam Shepard on Aging
To Johnny Dark, August 17, 1998—Minnesota
Remarkable time now. Can’t quite put my finger on it. Surrounded by death yet this persistent sense of the tremendous on-going force of life. Jessica’s mother died & of course, this was a huge shock to her—she was so devoted to her & closer than any mother-daughter I’ve ever known. Then her Aunt died—another woman she was extremely close to—(her father’s sister). Then the next door neighbor died—a man I’d got to know a little bit over the backyard fence. Then, almost immediately Jessica’s niece shows up from Mexico with her little half Mexican baby boy & moves into Jessica’s brother’s house (right next door). This little boy is quite amazing—full of life, good natured—always giggling & my little son Walker has taken a real shine to him—so the 2 of them are scrambling all over the house, playing games & laughing. Walker has a new parrot that screams all day & his yellow lab, ‘Pine,’ who’s always crashing around the place. Hannah has a new cello which she diligently practices on every day—so there’s Bach & Mozart music wafting through the house. Shura is getting all keyed up to go off to college so she’s watching videotapes of these little isolated liberal arts schools off in the hinterlands of Vermont & Massachusetts—images of blonde, liberally-minded girls & boys romping through the snow banks, dancing to African music, performing science experiments. Life not only ‘goes on,’ it’s absolutely unstoppable!
—This is one of those stop & start letters. I’m picking this up again about a week later. I’m in a little cafe out in River Falls, Wisconsin. I’m in a booth across from a long table, full of old farmers (ironically). They’re all talking about football—The Green Bay Packers & Kansas City Chiefs. This happens to be the town where the Chiefs hold their summer practice.
—Another jump—I’m in my cabin, out at the farm [in River Falls, Wisconsin]. Big thunderstorm just blew through & dumped buckets of rain. Now it’s clearing but still overcast & damp. Crickets are all creaking in the tall wet grass—sounds like it should be the middle of the night. I just finished sitting for 40 minutes. I’m having a hard time lately making it through a solid hour because of the pain in my lower back & hips. Age is creeping inexorably in. I’m only just now beginning to see the first glimpse of what it truly means to be between two natures. I must admit this had always remained an intellectual notion for me for many years. Now I can really feel it. The incredible weakness of my wish & how it is always swallowed up by this adversary of my imagined self—the picture of who I am. This greedy one, never satisfied, always hungry for something ‘more,’ something different, something else, something elsewhere. My inclination always is to do battle with this part of myself—to ‘get rid’ of it; to smother it; cast it out somehow but never to simply ‘see’ it. Very difficult. I don’t find it easy at all to accept. It’s hugely seductive &, in fact, such a major part of me I don’t see how I could live without it. Maybe this is the beginning of understanding ‘sacrifice.’ I don’t know. At times I feel I’m right on the cutting edge of a whole new understanding & right in that moment I see I’m unwilling to take the leap. Scared maybe; afraid to lose the very aspect of this false self that keeps me in prison. Weird perdicament.
I’m sitting in Wisconsin surrounded by cattle, horses, crickets, chainsaws—the wind is blowing & I’m thinking of you—& Scarlett of course—& Healdsburg—& Jesse—& your silly dog.
More later, Yr Amigo
Sam Shepard on Addiction
To Johnny Dark, February 24, 2000
I’m suffering a luxury of riches here with all these alternative typewriters—switching back and forth. This one is the little Hermes portable which is very light and smooth but tends to slide around the desk more than the Voss …
I empathize with your struggle with dope but don’t exactly know what to say about it. I’m not even sure if you regard it as a struggle. For me, it just came down to a kind of terrible emotional crash where I knew I had to turn something around in myself or suffer horrible consequences. Some of those consequences I was already under the influence of and it began to really bear down on me in a way I couldn’t handle any more. I came very close to destroying just about everything that really meant something to me—my relationship with Jessica [Lange], my kids most of all. I couldn’t believe the amount of self-destruction I was capable of and I became so isolated and removed from everyone that I thought I might as well take a look at this alcoholic situation to see if it really applied to me. I still couldn’t believe I was alcoholic when I entered the meetings for the second time in New York. I kept drinking through about the first week of meetings and then, slowly something began to bend—I guess it was my pride more than anything. I had a hard time seeing myself in the same exact bag as my old man, who I swore I would never resemble. In a way, the decision to stop drinking was the easiest part—of course you go through about a three month stretch where you body has to detox and get rid of all the poison you’ve built up and through that time there’s a lot of craving and self-pity but then the “need” for booze kind of leaves your physical self and the psychological part takes over. That’s the tough one for me because it all has to do with this thing of loneliness and the inability to have easy relationships with other people. It’s the very reason I started drinking in the first place—the bar, the “Nightlife”; the excitement of meeting strange women; the “Adventure”—this whole notion that there’s something out there I’m missing out on and booze was definitely the ticket that opened the door. The false courage that drinking gave me allowed me to indulge any idiocy that came along with never any thought of having to pay for it down the road. Also, there was the “romance” with the bottle—I was a writer, I had a license to drink. All writers drink, even great ones. I was a “tough guy.” I could take it. I didn’t give a shit what anybody thought and I didn’t really give a shit what I did to other people in the way of abuse or denial. I was my own guy! I’m amazed I lived through it actually: blackouts on the road doing ninety miles an hour, winding up sleeping in ditches; fist fights with Marines; hangovers that went on through half the day and were only remedied by more booze, strange women who could have been carrying anything; pool games til the crack of dawn with Italian Mafioso types where I lost hundreds of dollars, terrible fights with the ones I loved; the shakes, vomiting, shitting my pants on the street—Sounds like fun, huh? From the outside one might say well, sure, it was probably time for you to take stock of yourself but I never saw the least little part of it. I thought the world was fucked up and I was just reacting like some kind of underground hero.
Anyhow, the long and short of it is I know that you and I are somewhat similar in the area of our difficulty to get along with other people and the world at large—this isolation thing. It may be one of the reasons we’ve maintained such a friendship over the years. No one else will dain [sic] to talk to us! I think the personality type that we both carry (I don’t know the name of it or the category it might fall into on anybody’s chart) is particularly prone to addiction of one kind or another. I know there have been times I would do anything to get out of this feeling of being completely cut off. But we’re both lucky in that we’ve found amazing women in this life; we’ve stumbled our way across actual esoteric knowledge and had the good fortune to meet men like Pentland; we still get a kick out of stringing words together and concocting images and feel the importance of trying to attempt to get down something of our experience through time and those blessings seem to more and more out-weigh the temporary trances of being smashed and carried away with images of myself as some kind of fascinating fellow. I don’t think too much about booze anymore but when I was up there in Vancouver doing the film and every night going out to dinner with all these actors and movie people around—Sean Penn, Nicholson et al; and everyone was drinking and telling stories and carrying on—I thought—the “thought” crossed through my mind of how easy it would be to just order a little shot of bourbon straight-up and knock it back and feel that warm glow of confidence and giddiness and stupid arrogance again and just have a grand old time sitting around ogling girls and telling lies and letting all the bullshit fly but then something else came in that flat knew that if I did that I would be long gone down the lost road again. I’m not saying I’m on the “found” road now but I can tell the difference between a dead-end and an open highway. It’s very clear. And I don’t even know exactly how I came to it but I think I had to come to that very severe bottom end before I ever considered the alternative. I’m three years sober now but there’s still always the possibility that the maniac could leap up one day and decide to have a “little drink.” Who knows? It’ll probably always be there. And I could say, “Well, I’ve been a very good boy for three years and I actually deserve a little drink. What the hell!” And there I’d be—right back where I started. I was looking at the Aphorisms in the back of Views from the Real World the other day and happened to stick on this one: “If you already know it is bad and do it, you commit a sin difficult to redress.” Of course, words like “bad” and “sin” don’t sit real easy with any of us anymore but somewhere we know exactly what he’s talking about and somewhere we might even begin to taste the beginnings of a conscience—“woe is me!.”
I’m off to New York soon but I’ll write some more and you do the same. Regards to Scarlett and the big dog. Hope things stay sunny down there.
Que via bien!
Sam Shepard on Seeing Former-Lover Patti Smith After Many Years
To Johnny Dark, March 23, 2005—New York City
Good to hear from you. Many new developments here. Out of the blue Patti Smith calls me up & wants to meet up—so we meet at Café Dante down in the West Village where Dylan used to play & I was a busboy right around the corner about a hundred years ago. Patti’s as sweet as ever, somewhat haggard around the edges like all of us. She has 2 teen-age kids from a guitar player husband who drank himself to death & she’s had a lot of death in her immediate family but nevertheless still maintains a great bravado about life. One of the things I always liked about her. Anyway I tell her Jessica is about to open on Broadway in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie & would she like to come to the opening & bring her daughter along. So, she comes & there we all are—me & my 2 kids—Walker & Hannah & Patti & her daughter & Jessica’s on stage acting her heart out. Life is absolutely overwhelming. At the party later me & Patti are standing around with a plate of cookies kind of giggling like little kids & I confess to her that I’m completely confused by all this. It feels exactly the same being around her now as it did then except we’ve now got these grown kids. She says she knows what I mean. Now, my son Walker might be going out on a date with Patti’s daughter whose name just happens to be—Jesse! Unbelievable.
Anyway, good to hear your Deming voice—great picture of you peeking out the suburban doorway. I’m re-reading all my collected history books about the West from early 1500’s (Spanish invasion) to the 1890’s (closing of the frontier). My absolute favorite era. Keep coming across extraordinary details & characters.
Love to Scarlett—
Talk to you soon—amigo
Excerpted from Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark, edited by Chad Hammett, © 2013. Reproduced with permission from the University of Texas Press.